The Left's Strategic Mistake (?) Regarding Clarence Thomas:

With Clarence Thomas so much in the news these days, I was thinking about whether left-wing political activists made a terrible mistake (from their own perspective) regarding Clarence Thomas, pushing him, permanently, farther to the right then he would have ended up on his own.

If one looks at Thomas's biography, it's clear that he is a very thoughtful man, whose pre-Court ideology ranged all over the place, from young Catholic seminarian to radical student activist to non-religious libertarian (including an apparent Ayn Rand phase), to Straussian natural law follower, and, finally, to Catholic conservative with a libertarian streak. I can't remember if I saw this in an excerpt from his book or from one of his interviews, but while everyone assumes that he's always been anti-abortion, he claims to have told John Danforth in the mid-70s regarding abortion that the government has no right to tell women what to do with their bodies!

It's also clear that, despite his reputation in some circles, Thomas has always thought himself to be concerned with the fate of his fellow blacks. Thomas, for example, told his white conservative EEOC employees that being against affirmative action is not a "civil rights agenda," that one has to think about how one can create an alternative agenda that would aid blacks within a conservative/libertarian framework. One of those employees, Clint Bolick, went on to co-found the Institute for Justice, which has won renown for championing school choice, the rights of inner-city entrepreneurs, and opposing uses of eminent domain that tend to hurt the poor.

In short, Thomas did not need to become the left's enemy. His permanent ideological trajectory was likely somewhere to the right, but he could have been a bridge between the mainstream liberal civil rights community and the conservative establishment that wasn't especially concerned about the fate of the African American population.

Moreover, given that Thomas was only 42 when he reached the Court, and given the rather eclectic sources of his ideology (Thomas Sowell, Richard Wright, Rand, his grandfather, etc.), his views over time may have evolved in very interesting ways. It's unlikely, again, that he would have wound up back on the left, but his views may have been in some respects more congenial to the left than they are now.

I had occasion to get to know Thomas somewhat when he was at the EEOC and a judge on the D.C. Circuit. Even then, he was obviously somewhat bitter about how his left-wing critics treated him. From what I've seen, his new book and the interviews he's given make it clear that, not surprisingly, he's much more bitter about how his confirmation hearings progressed, and the often implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) racist attacks he has faced as a Justice. His views on affirmative action have almost certainly hardened, given that he has personally experienced what he always suspected was the fatal flaws of racial preferences--that the beneficiaries of such preferences are suspected of not being "qualified" no matter what their achievements, and that such beneficiaries are also expected to express eternal gratitude toward, and fealty to, the liberal establishment for granting them these preferences.

In short, by treating Thomas as an enemy, and not just someone with whom they had sharp and sincere disagreements, Thomas's harsh critics made him into an enemy. Thomas, who had a wild ideological ride for many years, seems to have settled into his current worldview (including his newfound religiosity) just after, and a result of, his confirmation hearings. Given that he has essentially no respect for the legal establishment (such as Yale Law School, which he refuses to visit or allow to honor him), mainstream civil rights organizations, or the mainstream media, all of whom he blames for his confirmation ordeal, he's not in much of a position to be influenced by any of them. Meanwhile, the ordeal seems to have bonded him with various friends in the DC conservative establishment who supported him through the confirmation.

Of course, it's possible that Thomas's views would have ended up in exactly the same place even if his adversaries had treated him with more respect. And, while I don't agree with Thomas on everything, I can't say that I'm unhappy overall with his performance as Justice, especially compared to his colleagues. But it's still interesting to consider what intellectual path Thomas may have taken that were essentially closed off to him (or that he closed off) because of the unsuccessful campaign against him.

UPDATE: Just to be clear, I didn't find Thomas to be a bitter person generally. In fact, when he was talking about anything other than prominent liberal activists who had it in for him when he was EEOC chair, he was about as pleasant, engaging, and fun a conversationalist as I've met, and very charismatic too (which is why the Bushies made a HUGE mistake in overcoaching him for his hearings--if you compare the Thomas of the original hearings with the unscripted Thomas of the Hill-Thomas hearings, you will see what I mean), not to mention his amazing, infectious, laugh.

Come to think of it, perhaps a better description than "bitter" would be "contemptuous" of his adversaries, or at least the ones who treated him as an Uncle Tom/traitor-to-his-race enemy.

Further UPDATE: Commenter Jim puts it well: "Nobody's opinions, legal or otherwise, exist in a vacuum. Most people read a variety of thinkers, both ones they agree with and those with whom they disagree but hold in high esteem. Obviously by treating him contemptuously, people who might have been in that second category for Justice Thomas, prevented themselves from having a significant impact on Thomas. That's only natural, and it doesn't reflect poorly on Thomas."

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. The Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill Controversy and Irrational Hatred of Ideological Adversaries:
  2. The Left's Strategic Mistake (?) Regarding Clarence Thomas:
The Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill Controversy and Irrational Hatred of Ideological Adversaries:

The publication of Clarence Thomas' memoir will focus new attention on the controversy over who was telling the truth about Anita Hill's charge that he sexually harrassed her. To my mind, the most interesting aspect of this debate is the way in which nearly all conservatives seem to believe Thomas, while nearly all liberals believe Hill. The few exceptions are striking precisely because they are so unusual.

Since only Thomas and Hill themselves really know what happened with any certainty, this degree of polarization is striking. Nothing in conservative ideology precludes the possibility that individual conservatives might engage in boorish and morally reprehensible private behavior of the sort Thomas is accused of; similarly, liberal ideology does not deny the possibility that a person in Hill's position might lie for political gain. Given the murkiness of the underlying facts, unbiased observers would not split so sharply along ideological lines on this issue. You would expect to see at least some significant number of liberals who believe Thomas, some conservatives who believe Hill, and many in both camps who aren't sure who to believe.

Some of the polarization was probably just a matter of political posturing. Conservatives did not want to lose a valuable Supreme Court seat (as they might have, if Thomas' nomination had been defeated and President George H.W. Bush were forced to nominate a centrist or liberal replacement comparable to Souter or Anthony Kennedy). Liberals, of course, sought Thomas' defeat for similar reasons.

However, most of the polarization over Thomas-Hill probably wasn't feigned. It was instead a consequence of the all-too-common assumption that our ideological adversaries are not only wrong but also evil - or at least far more likely to be so than those who agree with us. If you believe that liberals are, on average, likely to be morally corrupt, then it would be rational for you to assume that a liberal is more likely to be lying than a conservative and thus to automatically believe Thomas over Hill even in the absence of clear proof. And vice versa if you hold the reverse view.

I have previously criticized the unthinking equation of political ideology with moral virtue here, in the context of explaining why many people are excessively hostile to the idea of dating someone with a different political ideology. The two situations are very different, but the same phenomenon may be at work in each case. Both blanket condemnation of cross-ideological dating and the Thomas-Hill polarization are in large part the result of our unhealthy tendency to equate ideological disagreement with moral depravity.

UPDATE: Various commenters point out that the Thomas-Hill polarization can be explained by the possibility that conservatives are, for ideological reasons, generally less inclined to believe accusations of sexual harrassment than liberals are. There is some truth to this. But it fails to account for the fact that, just a few years later, most conservatives tended to believe and most liberals denied Paula Jones' sexual harrassment accusations against Bill Clinton. In such politically charged cases, the ideology of the accuser and accused seems to determine ideologues' reactions far more than their general perceptions of sexual harrassment.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. The Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill Controversy and Irrational Hatred of Ideological Adversaries:
  2. The Left's Strategic Mistake (?) Regarding Clarence Thomas: